Health problems that can cause behavior changes in dogs

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Common health problems that can change your dog’s behavior

If your dog has become anxious, withdrawn or snappy, don’t just assume he’s “acting out”. A variety of physical health issues can trigger behavior changes in our canine companions.

We’re constantly trying to interpret our dogs’ behavior. Since our four-legged besties can’t tell us how they feel in words, we need to try to decipher their actions, attitudes and mannerisms instead. A change in normal behavior in your dog is a red flag. Most people assume that unusual behavior is caused by stress, boredom or some other external situation. However, it could also signal a medical condition. The question is, how do you determine when behavior changes are related to a physical health problem?

Know what’s normal

First and foremost, as a practicing veterinarian, I tell my clients they need to be familiar with what’s “normal” in their dogs in order to determine what’s “abnormal”. This is especially important when it comes to behavior because it’s how our four-legged companions “talk” to us.

Knowing what’s normal when it comes to your dog’s everyday behavior can prove to be invaluable when it comes to his health. For example, how much does he eat each day? How much water does he drink? How often does he ask to go outside to do his business? How many times a day does he defecate? How often does he urinate?

Most dogs initially exhibit very subtle behavior changes – changes that often go unnoticed. By the time unmistakable signs develop, the issue has become severe, so it’s important to tune yourself into your dog’s regular behavior, so you’ll be able to spot those subtle changes early on.

Change in appetite? Don’t assume he’s bored with his food

Often, when a dog with a good appetite becomes finicky, his people figure he’s probably bored with what he’s eating. This can certainly be the case, but in my experience, a change in appetite is more often associated with an underlying gastrointestinal issue.

When a normally-hungry dog becomes reluctant to eat, it’s often because he’s experiencing nausea, acid reflux or a canine tummy ache. Many people respond by offering these pooches everything under the sun in order to get them to eat. In fact, many of these dogs begin living on snacks, instead of eating normal meals. Some might even start chewing on various other objects as a result of the anxiety associated with nausea; this behavior is often misinterpreted as destructiveness.

Taking these dogs to the vet can help resolve these issues. After a thorough examination, including blood chemistries, a fecal exam and imaging of the stomach and intestines, these cases are usually diagnosed as medical conditions. For example, eating disorders can be associated with inflammation of the pancreas, stomach and/or intestines. Certain endocrine or hormonal disorders such as Addison’s disease can also result in appetite fluctuations. The good news is that once a diagnosis is made, solutions can be offered. Once the physical problem is addressed, the behavioural changes usually also subside.

Peeing inside the house? He’s not just being “bad”

Urinating inside the house, even when the dog has been impeccably house-trained, is usually a sign of a physical issue, not naughtiness. You’ll definitely know something’s amiss if you start having to fill your dog’s bowl more often, because he’s drinking more.

Generally, when your dog drinks more than usual, he will also need to urinate more.   Veterinarians refer to this syndrome as “pu/pd”. “Pu” stands for polyuria, in which dogs urinate excessively. “Pd” is an abbreviation for polydipsia; these dogs drink in excess. While this can sometimes signal a behavioral problem, pu/pd is a classic symptom of a variety of medical issues.

  • Cushing’s disease or hyperadrenocorticism is an endocrine condition in which excess levels of cortisol are secreted. This causes an increase in water intake and urination, usually without any abnormalities in kidney function. In many cases, these dogs have an increased appetite as well.Some “Cushinoid” canines also display additional behavioural changes, such as irritability and lethargy, along with other physical symptoms like distended abdomens and thinning coats. Once proper treatment is initiated, these issues resolve.
  • Kidney disease, often found in middle-aged and older canines, is associated with an increase in water intake and urination. Because the kidneys regulate water balance, these dogs are generally dehydrated and drink in excess to try to hydrate themselves.Many of these dogs also become lethargic, sleep more than usual, and experience appetite changes. When the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, toxins normally eliminated in the urine are reabsorbed into the blood and circulate throughout the body. Routine blood work along with a urinalysis usually reaches a diagnosis.
  • Diabetes mellitus also changes a dog’s water intake, urination frequency and appetite. Lethargy may or may not accompany these initial symptoms. A urinalysis to detect sugar in the urine, along with a blood test to document excess sugar levels in the blood, are diagnostic.
  • Pyometra, a disease in which bacteria and pus accumulate in the uterus of elderly, intact or unspayed female dogs can result in similar somewhat vague signs — drinking and urinating in excess, poor appetite and lethargy. In advanced cases, these canines begin vomiting and often develop diarrhea. An abdominal x-ray along with blood work easily diagnose the problem. Surgery to remove the infected uterus is lifesaving.

Many additional medical conditions can present as behavior changes in dogs (see below). The most important takeaway message is to get to know your dog’s “normal” behaviors so you can recognize the “abnormal” — including even subtle changes — and address with them with your veterinarian sooner rather than later. Don’t assume your dog is being stubborn or naughty if he starts acting out of character on a regular basis – he may simply be feeling off-color and in need of a check-up!

Additional conditions that can lead to behavior changes

  • Any pain or discomfort arising from arthritis, allergies, ear infections, dental problems, etc. can cause a dog to become irritable, snappy, withdrawn or anxious. These physical problems aren’t always overtly obvious, so regular veterinary check-ups are important to catch them early.
  • Hypothyroidism can manifest in behavioral as well as physical symptoms. The former include lethargy, mental dullness, depression, moodiness, irritably and even aggression.
  • Canine cognitive disorder occurs in older dogs, and is similar to dementia in humans. It can cause distinct behavior and personality changes. Dogs may become confused, anxious, disorientated, restless, foggy and depressed. They may forget their housetraining and start having accidents in the house, or be unable to respond to familiar cues such as “come” or “sit”.
  • Brain tumors can also cause alterations in behavior, ranging from aggression and personality changes to reduced cognitive function, “drunken” movement and circling.
  • Changes in vision or hearing can lead to behavior changes as well. Declining vision may lead to reduced playfulness, a growing reluctance to go for walks or up and down stairs, a desire to sleep more, and clumsiness. A dog whose hearing is going will gradually stop responding to auditory cues, which can be misinterpreted as stubbornness. Dogs with vision and hearing problems can also startle easily, causing them to snap or jump if approached or touched from behind.